Biodiversity transformation: Preserving quality of life and urban spaces, Singapore style
You wouldn’t know it today, but in 1965 Singapore was a polluter’s paradise: mucky rivers, polluted canals and raw sewage running rampant. It was a developing country, newly split from neighbouring Malaysia, an island surrounded by waters that now they had to govern on their own.
The incredible journey of Singapore, from a struggling polluted backwater into a global green powerhouse, was not automatic or easy. How it aimed to maintain its environmental momentum, was to take the lessons of history and create a new generation of eco-warriors in its students. The engine behind this is Singapore’s national park service.
The energetic Group Director for National Biodiversity Centre at National Parks Board, Lim Liang Jim, recently shared his vision for Singapore’s future - a future dependent on its students becoming eco-activists and preserving the gains made since the city-state’s gritty early days.
“From 1965 we merely wanted to rise above the region we found ourselves in. Lee Kuan Yew had a plan. Keep us clean. Keep us green.” The city’s pioneer generation, he said, understood that if you make a city “a nice place to live, then people will come and invest. Then we moved up.” Lee Kuan Yew was often called ‘Chief Gardener’ for his belief in the power of plants and biodiversity to transform people’s overall mental well-being, as well as physical spaces.
As a city-state, Singapore had the luxury of a centralized government solely concerned with looking after its citizens’ well-being and future. Biodiversity was not just a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘must-have’ for Singaporeans who wanted to stay in their land and build their new country from the ground up.
The National Biodiversity Centre, for instance, recently developed a high-tech app, the SGBioAtlas. This allows all members of the public (including students) to take a photo of a plant, bird or animal. The app geotags it and uploads it into their central database. Through their smartphones, students as well as ordinary citizens become instant citizen scientists.
Walk around Singapore today, and you will not see smelly, polluted rivers, but plants that literally crawl up skyscrapers, a garden or park in virtually every corner of the city, and teams of eco-volunteers who scour the island nation looking after its wildlife of all stripes.
As Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, stated in his recent Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6) opening address, “in the 1960s, Singapore was like any other developing country – dirty and polluted, lacking proper sanitation and facing high unemployment. These challenges were particularly acute, given our constraints as a small island state with limited resources; we did not even have enough drinking water.”
Singapore, since its break-off from Malaysia in 1965, had no choice but to become one big urban space where its citizens would pack into its urban centre. Less well known, is the difficult and long journey towards sustainable conservation and biodiversity.
With independence came the push to industrialize as fast as possible. According to Minister Zulkifli, “one of Singapore’s transformations involved the cleaning of the Singapore River, which was literally an open sewer in the 1960s and 1970s. The clean-up took ten years and involved thousands of Singaporeans relocating from farms, factories and street-food stalls that were polluting the river catchment. The successful clean-up also set in motion a process to create a reservoir in the heart of the city.”
So how did they manage to become an advanced economy and preserve their environment at the same time? As is the case in many countries, short-term thinking was always going to prioritize economic development over the environment. A mindset shift was needed, said Minister Zulkifli. “Our approach has been to build a liveable and sustainable city, through pragmatic policymaking based on sound economic principles and science; a focus on long-term planning and effective implementation; and the ability to mobilise popular support for the common good.” The message was clear: if Singapore could transform itself from a polluted backwater into a global green powerhouse, so can any city.
For thirty years, the city-state painstakingly cleaned up its polluted areas, created agencies like the National Parks Board, and determined that everywhere one looked, one could find greenery. A concrete jungle was never what the pioneers had in mind. From urban planning to policy inducements to zoning to public awareness campaigns, the successive governments of Singapore have followed this central vision for their nation. They now call it the ‘biophilic City in a Garden,’ and the government calls upon every Singaporean to do their part to keep their city green and clean.
Youth are the key
The current evolution of this vision, says Lim, includes a key component of the Nature Conservation Master Plan (NCMP): outreach. In this vision, they are targeting Singapore’s youth.
“We are going back to history, to ensure that we build from the ground up and ensure that the youth of Singapore don’t take our 50 years of history for granted,” Lim says. With a new generation of Singaporeans who only know clean air and green parks, the lessons of history can easily be forgotten.
“We don’t want that to happen. We want a ground up effort, to appreciate nature more, contribute to the science behind the conservation of nature so it becomes a movement.” A youth movement and a generation which has grown up educated in conservation is insurance, Lim says. “In future if someone says, ‘let’s not think about green, let’s build’, there will be a significant percentage of population” who can act as informed advocates for nature’s conservation and green spaces instead of a modern, first-world city.
The next generation will hopefully buy-in to the vision, he says, that “‘we treasure Singapore’s unique status as a green and biodiverse city and we should work to keep it this way.’” To him, this is the legacy of Singapore’s founding generation he and his team are working to retain and enhance. “We want to ensure the sustainability of our green vision.”
Environmental conservation “has to be something that is driven by the grassroots movement, it has to become in a sense political. You can’t easily turn a nature reserve into buildings, it would require some reasoned discussion with the public. We have to make sure that the younger generation appreciate our nature and biodiversity and not take them for granted.”